You Will React When and How We Say You Can, or An Average Night at the Symphony

Rome’s Teatro Argentina, 1747: A Real Madhouse!

This week two brilliantly ballsy commentaries took classical music to task on concert etiquette. Richard Dare’s blog post in The Huffington Post surveyed the “cadaverous” atmosphere of many classical venues, while also touching upon a major audience sticking point and the focus of Mark Caro‘s Chicago Tribune article, the slippery slope of clapping.

All performing arts hold their own conventions about when to applaud, but even classical music’s most open-minded apologists have to agree that a night at the symphony is an entirely different, much more restrained animal.  Clapping is reserved for the end of an entire work. Whether it’s a compact, characterful one-movement sonata by Scarlatti, or the emotionally buffeting, multi-movement hour plus that is the Brahms Requiem, audiences are expected to keep those feelings in check until the final double bar line.

Applauding between movements is a special, especially naughty exception: witnessing an audience clapping after the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra‘s stirring first movement of a J.C. Bach symphony was like catching a DMV clerk without their name tag, an action that is hardly an offense in everyday life but which constitute a mischievous act of deviancy under more oppressive conditions.  Clapping during a movement, for example to cheer a dense, flawlessly executed orchestral passage (like Boston Pops fans do all the time) or a great solo (polite conduct at a jazz venue) is simply unacceptable, a clear disregard for, or ignorance of, the rules.  After all, this is important stuff, there must be rules!

Liszt Helped Expand the Technical Scope of the Piano, and Also Inspired the Phenomenon of Female Fans Throwing Undergarments at Performers

It’s no surprise that many classical listeners seem more concerned with proper decorum rather than the music itself, since the average classical listener at the average classical venue has already heard the music plenty of times. What’s actually surprising is that the crowd that stands for “music, above all else!” abides by conventions that are so foreign to all other forms of music, including classical music as it was played and heard in its heyday. Classical lovers who assume their tastes are too dignified for a wayward cheer should read Dare’s references to late nineteenth symphony patrons screaming and standing on chairs, or Joel Cohen mentioning the orgy of food, drink, gossip, gambling and god knows what else that constituted an average night at the opera.

Judging by the silence surrounding a wistful, heartfelt song for voice and guitar at a folk festival, or the participatory nature of most gospel concerts, greater audience interaction doesn’t necessarily mean a return to raucous eighteenth and nineteenth century standards.  As for Chicago Symphony Orchestra bassist Steve Lester’s belief that clapping disturbs the delicate juxtaposition of sentiments between movements, non-classical performers might feel differently.  An uptempo bop burner is often followed by a smoky ballad, and a rousing arena anthem might be preceded by an audience-enchanting power ballad.  Still the audience remains just as absorbed and moved, even as they clap before, after and during it all.  If all those bands, choruses, combos, singer-songwriters and their fans “make due” with applause, why can’t orchestras and concertgoers?

Maybe some classical listeners fear that what they love will suffer a fate worse than the slow pedantic death it’s encountering now, that their beloved music will in fact be treated as music, rather than history, religion or cultural capital.

Music brings out a variety of responses in a variety of people.  Anyone who’s sat behind the cool cat in the club relentlessly snapping his fingers as though there’s a cone of silence between him and the beat, or witnessed some bespectacled, bedazzled baby boomer standing up and sashaying her fanny pack for the entire duration of an outdoor concert, in short anyone who’s attended live music has had to deal with annoying yet passionate fans. The worst of classical music’s problems should be audiences spilling over with emotion at what they hear.  As it stands now, passion is the last thing one has to contend with from a classical audience.

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